Tag Archives: Native species

The Trouble With Milkweed

“We have to convince the nursery industry that native plants are about more than just looks.” — Doug Tallamy


Lately, I’ve been diving into seed and plant nursery catalogs. Making elaborate lists. Planning new pollinator gardens. Is there a better way to spend these rainy April days? Other than going for a hike, of course!

Wild leeks (Allium tricoccum), The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

As I thumb through the catalogs, planning to plant more prairie at home, I’m amazed at the number of “native” plants now on offer. Natives are hot, hot, hot! I wonder if the push for us to support monarch butterflies, native bees, and other pollinators may be having a positive influence.

Common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca), Schulenberg Prairie, 2016.

As I flip the catalog pages, I take a closer look. Wait a minute. I know this plant—the wonderful Butterfly Weed (Asclepias tuberosa), a favorite of mine in my backyard prairie patch and a magnet for monarch butterflies and monarch caterpillars. But what is ‘Hello Yellow’ Milkweed? Hmmm… . Not the orange version I see on the prairies in the summer.

Monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) on Butterfly Weed (Asclepias tuberosa), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL (2014).

Asclepias incarnata, Swamp Milkweed, is another favorite of mine. It loves the wet spots in my backyard prairie planting and attracts plenty of monarchs. I page through another nursery catalog and there it is. Or…is it? The scientific name is the same. But it’s called ‘Soulmate’ Butterfly Flower. And here it is again…yet another catalog lists the same scientific name, but the milkweed is white and called Swamp Milkweed ‘Milkmaid.’ Is this the same plant I see on my prairie hikes?

Swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL. (2020)

Are these native milkweeds? Do I want them in my garden?

Whorled milkweed (Asclepias verticillata), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL (2021).

What’s in a name, anyway? As it turns out…a lot.

Many cultivars—sometimes called nativars— are popping up in garden catalogs, right alongside the native plants (or even touted as natives). It’s confusing isn’t it?

Purple milkweed (Asclepias purpurascens), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL (2017).

Time to begin searching for more information.

Wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

Some of these “native” plants in the catalogs are cultivars, or sometimes called nativars. Cultivars are—simply put—a species that has been selected for certain traits, such as a particular color, and then bred to ensure the subsequent plants of that species exhibit those traits. On the positive side, many native plant cultivars have increased vigor. That’s good, right? As a gardener, I like that in a plant. But does it perform in the same way, if it finds its way to our natural areas?

Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

I’m not sure we know. Yet.

Butterfly Weed (Asclepias tuberosa), Belmont Prairie, Downers Grove, IL (2020).

How can you spot a native that’s a cultivar or nativar? A good clue here is a fancy name, vibrant color, a doubled flower, or a larger-than-normal size. Look for a cute name in quote marks (i.e., Echinacea purpurea ‘Purple Passion’). These native cultivars may appeal to gardeners who want more jazzy blooms than the native itself might offer. Echinacea —coneflowers—often get this treatment. Evidently milkweeds are getting it too. And why, I wonder, when the native itself is so pretty?

Regal fritillary butterfly (Speyeria idalia) on pale purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL.

I continue looking for information, and learn multiple sources recommend avoiding double-flowered native plant offerings, as they can be tough for pollinators to gain access to pollen and nectar. Some cultivars of particular species may not set seeds. As seeds are valuable for wildlife, this seems like a missed opportunity.

Butterfly Weed (Asclepias tuberosa), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL (2020).

I also learn that cultivars that have purple or red leaves may be tougher for caterpillars to feed on. The National Wildlife Federation also notes, “Presumably, the more variegation (in foliage), the less nutritious the plants are for wildlife.” Does this mean none of my plants should have variegated foliage or have purple leaves? Of course not. But learning about these plant features reminds me to be intentional when I plant. My desire for these attractive features would need to be balanced by including other wildlife-friendly plants. And in my small yard, how much room do I want to give to plants that aren’t pollinator or wildlife-friendly?

Butterfly Weed (Asclepias tuberosa), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL (2020).

I found this article compelling from the National Wildlife Federation: “Native, or Not So Much?” It includes a wonderful interview with Doug Tallamy, author of Bringing Nature Home, and helped me clarify my thinking as I prepared my catalog order.

Whorled milkweed (Asclepias verticillata), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL.

I also appreciated this article: The Nativar Conundrum. It reminded me that cultivars can offer us disease resistance and bigger fruits in garden plants, like trees and shrubs. There are benefits! But there is so much we still have to learn about native prairie plants and cultivars. For now, with my prairie natives, I will choose the originals first. Until we know more, I’d rather stay with the tried and true. I’m not ready to trade in the original species. I’ll like to know more about the impact of the fancier cultivars on pollinators—and our prairie communities.

Swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) with cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis), Nomia Meadows Farm, Franklin Grove, IL.

Which brings us back to the milkweeds. While deciding what milkweeds to plant this season, I learned all milkweeds are not necessarily beneficial to monarchs when planted in my state. Tropical milkweed (Asclepias curassavica) is a great example, as it is not native to the United States, and has been noted as detrimental to monarch butterflies when planted in the Midwest. Monarchs love tropical milkweed—and their caterpillars seemingly flourish on it. When I read this article from Xerces Society, I learned the damage this beautiful milkweed may cause the monarch population, including breeding confusion, potential toxicity to caterpillars as our climate changes, and migration interference. Who wants to be a part of that?

Whorled milkweed (Asclepias verticillata), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Back to the catalogs. There are so many tempting “natives” to consider buying! But–because I receive a lot of catalogs from all over the United States, many of the “natives” they list aren’t native to the place where I live. Yes, even some milkweeds! If I’m not sure about a plant, a good source for determining if a plant is native to my area is to use the USDA website. I’m also leery of the “prairie mixes” touted by various catalogs. So many of the species aren’t native to my region. Better to buy the species I know.

Are all my garden plants native? No! I have a mix of about 70 percent natives in my garden and 30 percent traditional garden plants. I doubt I could part with my zinnias!

Monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) and ruby-throated hummingbird (Archilochus colubris) on Cut-and-Come-Again Zinnias (Zinnia elegans), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

But I want to continue increasing my native plant percentages. And I want to know what I’m buying—is it the “true native” or a cultivar?—and make my decisions thoughtfully and intentionally. Every plant I grow needs to earn its place in the garden. I’m still learning about native cultivars, and as more studies are done, I’ll keep an open mind. The trouble right now is we just don’t have enough information.

Common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL (2019).

With milkweeds, I’m finding the decision this spring is easy. In Illinois, there are more than 20 species of milkweed native to our state. A good list of milkweeds found in the Chicago region is listed here from Wild Ones. Or click here for the list of milkweeds found in Illinois, and to see images of these beautiful monarch magnets.

Butterfly Weed (Asclepias tuberosa), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL (2021).

Seeing these lists makes my milkweed buying decision easy this spring. No trouble at all. With so many beautiful native milkweeds available to me, why settle for less than the real thing?


The opening quote is from Janet Marinelli’s National Wildlife Federation interview with Doug Tallamy, which can be found at Native, or Not So Much? All of us who love the prairie need to keep learning and keep an open mind as new developments occur in the native plant arena, and work toward a healthier, more diverse natural world that benefits all creatures. Tallamy’s books are excellent reads, including Bringing Nature Home and The Nature of Oaks. Thanks also to Lonnie Morris of DuPage Monarchs, who brought the tropical milkweed issue to my attention.


Join Cindy for a class or program in April! (Visit http://www.cindycrosby.com for more).

Tuesday, April 12, 7-8:30 p.m. The Tallgrass Prairie: Grocery Store, Apothecary, and Love Charm Shop at Glenview Public Library, Glenview, IL. Open to the public (in person). Click here for details.

Wednesday, April 13, 7-8 p.m. Add a Little Prairie to Your Garden for Glencoe Public Library and Friends of the Green Bay Trail. Online only, and open to the public. Register here.

April 25, 9:30-11am The Tallgrass Prairie: Grocery Store, Apothecary, and Love Charm Shop with Country Home and Garden Club, Barrington, IL (In person). Closed event. For more information on the garden club click here.

Join Cindy for one, two, or three Spring Wildflower Walks at The Morton Arboretum! Learn some of the stories behind these spring flowers. April 22 (woodland, sold out), April 28 (woodland) and May 6 (prairie, one spot open) (9-11 a.m.). In person. Register here.

A New Prairie Year

“Ring out the old, ring in the new, ring, happy bells, across the snow.”–Alfred, Lord Tennyson


Winter settles in.

Russell R. Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL.

The prairie is glazed with ice.

Common Blackberry (Rubus allegheniensis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

And more ice.

Illinois Bundleflower (Desmanthus illinoensis), Russell R. Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Sleet adds to the magic.

Canada Wild Rye (Elymus canadensis), Russell R. Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Storm-melt freezes in mid-drip.

Compass Plant (Silphium laciniatum), Russell R. Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Powder sugars the grasses. Everything is dusted and sprayed and sprinkled with snow.

Russell R. Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Coyotes print their whereabouts on the paths.

Coyote (Canus latrans) tracks, Russell R. Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Plants are pared to their essence.

Tendrils, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Grasses are stripped to ribbons.

Big Bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Switchgrass is sparkling and spare.

Switchgrass (Panicum virgatum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

The old is gone.

Compass Plant (Silphium laciniatum), Russell R. Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Something new is on the way.

Switchgrass (Panicum virgatum) and Gray-headed Coneflowers (Ratibida pinnata),
Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

There is beauty in the singular….

Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Glory in the aggregate.

Russell R. Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL.

January is a time to reflect.

Russell R. Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL.

A time to divest ourselves of non-essentials.

Compass Plant (Silphium laciniatum), Russell R. Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL.

A time to take stock of what is most important.

Russell R. Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL.

A season to appreciate the beauty…

Russell R. Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL.

…and the diversity of the natural world; evident even in the deepest winter.

Goldenrod Rosette Gall or Bunch Gall (Rhopalomyia solidaginis) with Culver’s Root (Veronicastrum virginicum), Russell R. Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL.

With a new year…

Sunrise, looking east from the author’s backyard prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL.

…comes the opportunity to make choices about who we are.

Russell R. Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL.

The writer Kahlil Gibran said, “Tenderness and kindness are not signs of weakness and despair, but manifestations of strength and resolution.”

Russell R. Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL.

And, as another philosopher, Christopher Robin, once said (in the cinematic version of Winnie the Pooh), “You are braver than you believe, stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think.”

Prairie plantings along the DuPage River, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Hello, 2021! Let’s make it a good year.


The opening quote is by Victorian poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1850-1892). Tennyson likely wrote to distract himself from the tragedies of his life: his eleven siblings suffered from addiction, severe mental illness, and an unhappy home life. Read more about his life and poetry here; or listen to a delightful reading of Tennyson’s The Lady of Shalott from a scene with Megan Follows in the 1985 mini-series “Anne of Green Gables.” No matter what your age, check out this Emmy Award winning classic mini-series produced in Canada.


Join Cindy in 2021 for an online class! See http://www.cindycrosby.com for a complete list of virtual offerings. All classes and programs with Cindy this winter and spring are offered online only. Join me from your computer anywhere in the world.

Begins Next Week! January 14-February 4 (Four Thursdays) 6:30-8:30 pm CST Nature Writing II Online. Deepen your connection to nature and your writing skills in this intermediate online workshop from The Morton Arboretum. This interactive class is the next step for those who’ve completed the Nature Writing Workshop (N095), or for those with some foundational writing experience looking to further their expertise within a supportive community of fellow nature writers. Over the course of four live, online sessions, your instructor will present readings, lessons, writing assignments, and sharing opportunities. You’ll have the chance to hear a variety of voices, styles, and techniques as you continue to develop your own unique style. Work on assignments between classes and share your work with classmates for constructive critiques that will strengthen your skill as a writer. Ask your questions, take risks, and explore in this fun and supportive, small-group environment. Register here.

February 24, 7-8:30 CST: The Prairie in Art and Literature Online. The tallgrass prairie is usually thought of for its diverse community of plants, animals, and insects. Yet, it is also an inspiration for a creative community! In this interactive online talk, natural history author and prairie steward Cindy Crosby will explore historical and contemporary writers and artists, musicians, and other creatives working in the prairie genre: from Neil Young to Willa Cather to graphic comic artists , quilters, and jewelers expressing the prairie through their work. See the prairie in a new light! Come away inspired to appreciate and express your love of the tallgrass as you enjoy learning about this prairie “community.” Offered by The Morton Arboretum: Register here.